Sodom and Berlin

Excerpt #1: pp. 15-21

One evening in November 1918, Odemar Müller lurked near an advertising column in Potsdamer Platz, darting back and forth behind it as if he was playing hide-and-seek with someone, or looking in agitation for a particular theater announcement. In fact he was simply trying to dodge the hail of bullets directed by a detachment of machine-gunners at the railway station, where some Spartakists were holed up.

It was a November of flood and revolution. A steely rain lashed horizontally, and the silk umbrellas of the pretty women were useless. Bullets struck the roses they wore on their left breasts, and without a word these beauties lay down on the spot as if at the command of an invisible lover.

The Potsdamer Platz area was almost as dangerous as a front line in Champagne. A grey sky capped the city like a coffin lid. But the blue and white of the Kiel sailors added a splash of joy to the greyness of death. And the Red soldiers, with the rectangular gestures of Expressionist pictures, waved the banners of a devastating nightfall.

Yet the city pretended to know nothing of the Revolution. Day after day, on one street corner or another, skirmishes erupted: a few staccato reports, the screams of wounded men. The crowds melted away, right and left, into the sidestreets, and then everything returned to normal. The trams started up again, advancing slowly, like snails after a squall, between the broken walking-sticks and the stiffening corpses.

Odemar Müller was just back from the front. The train of defeat had deposited him in the city after a painful journey across a country paralysed by fear and want. And here he was in Berlin, the fevered head of a great sick body, starving and covered with sores: the Germany that had just lived through four years of heroism, four years of desolation, during which a great European people, having reached the very pinnacle of civilization, was plunged into a life more wretched than that of a Stone Age tribe, obliged to live on turnips, dress in foliage, and do without any form of heating or any means of contact with the outside world.

How welcome revolution was! Perhaps one would be able to breathe again, and see a little more clearly? Clarity at all costs! Long live Red and ever more Red after so many years of grey! Time to breathe in great lungfuls of air after so much burrowing into the mud!

Officers and men flooded by their thousands into Berlin. Following an order from somewhere—the last no doubt for a long time—they tore the black, white and red cockades from their kepis and the epaulettes from their greatcoats. Without distinction of rank, the defeated heroes returned to the homeland. What was there to be sad about? An East wind, the wind of freedom, was cooling their fevered brows.

The leaden downpour—the last volley from the clouds of war—was over now on Potsdamer Platz. The crowds, held back for twenty minutes, would soon be able to move. But at the very moment when the way forward opened up once more, when men who had been transformed into automata by the war were once more masters of their choices and desires and able to go to either left or right, as they wished—at that very moment, a great anxiety took hold of Odemar.

Where should he go? What should he do? Whom or what should he embrace?

There was nothing now for him in the place of his birth. His father, the old but valiant woodsman Müller, had fallen before Ypres as a captain of reserves; his mother had not survived the privations and solitude that the war had visited upon her. What reason did he have for returning to his sweet Thuringia?

So here he was in Berlin, penniless, with nothing in his pocket but his Iron Cross and a few Stars of Blood—decorations he had torn from his glorious breast at the first peal of defeat.

Certainly he had been a good soldier—just as he had been a good pupil at school and a good student at university. Ever since that memorable morning when the hussars’ bugles had dispelled his Romantic Rhineside dreams, Odemar had been a real German. Wilhelm Wander’s mysterious hold over him had evaporated like opium smoke. What had become, he wondered, of that wild dissenter Wander? Had he perhaps been mown down early on like so many friends of theirs? Or had he managed to slip, as he swore he would, into a neutral country? All contact between the two young men had been lost.

During the war Odemar had been promoted, cited, covered with glory. Then, gravely wounded, he had languished for long months in a hospital. There he witnessed the woeful daily procession of sacrificed heroes—an army of anonymous victims so great in number that Valhalla itself, that Dôme des Invalides of the ancient world, could not have accommodated it. Little by little, Odemar began to lose faith in his newfound ideals. The image of Wander’s disconcerting smile superimposed itself over and over again on the reports of victory. Odemar’s next-bed neighbor was an individual by the name of Zimmerman, an editor at the socialist paper Vorwärts and a fierce revolutionary who in moments of high fever would call out for Danton and Jaurès. In the surroundings, these names had a distinctly comic ring. But Odemar and Zimmerman were each happy to find another intellectual, and they became friends. As they strolled in the vegetable garden behind the hospital, the socialist, restless as a racehorse, imparted a new mystique to Odemar: the mystique of social justice and human freedom, of Revolution. As mystiques went, and considering the times they were in, it was every bit as good as Wander’s. By this point, moreover, the Red poison was rife in the German army. A few pamphlets slipped by Zimmerman under Odemar’s pillow reinforced his allegiance. When they parted ways, the editor persuaded his convert, who was still a little diffident, but whom he considered sincere, to pay him a visit the day he arrived in Berlin—though never for a moment did he suspect that that day was so close.

Now here Odemar was on Leipziger Strasse.

But could this long gray tunnel, with its wretched horde spreading down it like a layer of pressed caviar, really be that celebrated avenue, streaming with lights and beautiful women? Odemar was already acquainted, by hearsay and through photographs, with the great Siegesallee, the Avenue of Victory laid out by the first Emperor of Germany to honor his ancestors: every twenty meters or so, a king or prince of Prussia stood on a sugar-candy pedestal in a mawkish and stilted pose, smiling vapidly at History. What met his eyes now was more like an Avenue of Defeat. Every twenty meters or so, in front of the porte-cochères or at the doorways of the grand department stores, the war wounded begged for alms, indeed imperiously demanded to be paid for their heroism. They were looking not for a marble statue but for a nickel coin. Sometimes the latter is harder to get than the former. These were shadow heroes, tatters of men, caricatures of soldiers raising a disarming cacophony of macabre war melodies on a chance assortment of army fifes, drums, and clarinets. A few of the more privileged ground barrel organs. It was a true gallery of horrors. A towheaded little girl pulled a limbless torso of a man behind her in a baby carriage that must have been her own not so long before. Further down, a long thin body strove to support a dangling head that was nothing but a pink mass with a single hole in the middle for a mouth and nose. Another wretch was obliged by a nervous tic to hop continually on one foot—one got the feeling that if he were ever to stop, he would surely fall dead.

The thought occurred to Odemar that he was about to join this sinister parade. Unable to summon hope or will, he felt himself drifting towards his fate. What could he do? How would he make a living? Just then a little street vendor barged into him, shouting at the top of his lungs:

Vorwärts! Vorwärts! Long live the new revolutionary government!”

Odemar remembered then that he had one friend in this city, and that he had made that friend a promise. Delighted suddenly to have a goal, he asked a passer-by for the address of the socialist paper’s offices.

“You won’t get through,” he was told. “There’s fighting right in front of their building. The counter-revolutionaries have been laying siege to the place since this morning.”

So much the better, thought Odemar, who felt now that something was stirring within him after so many days of exhaustion and complete hopelessness.

When he reached Linden Strasse he ran, as forecast, into a military cordon. Soldiers with bayonets fixed and grenades hanging from their belts barred the way at a hundred meters from the building where, during those gruesome days, the fate of the German people hung in the balance. A fusillade erupted in a side street, and cries of terror and death rang in Odemar’s ears.

Intrepid, though, he elbowed his way forward until he found the NCO in charge of the detachment. Playing up the accent he had acquired as a member of the élite Arminia student fraternity, and making sure to display the crimson dueling scar he owed to Prince von Thurn and Taxis, Odemar explained:

“I am carrying a message from the Post Commander to Herr Zimmerman, editor at Vorwärts.”

Accustomed to obeying this tone of voice, the officer let him pass.

Odemar went on down the street, from which all life, and seemingly all air, had fled. The very buildings seemed transfixed, paralysed by fear. His uniform was unbuttoned and waterlogged, and his Iron Cross jingled in his trousers pocket along with a few buttons and odd minor medals, but he strode into the newspaper building erect and purposeful, a man sure of his destiny. No one challenged him. The narrow stairwell buzzed like a wasps’ nest in a rocky crevice. The doors to all the offices were wide open, and the irritated jangling of telephones emerged from every one. Men ran up and down, jostling one another, panting and grabbing each other by the lapels as they tried to communicate orders. Odemar wandered through the building like a visitor to a pyramid under construction. An office-boy to whom he called Zimmerman’s name gestured vaguely towards a door, this one closed. Reckoning that in times like these niceties went the same way as military ranks, he entered without knocking, and found himself in a conference room. A dozen people stood shouting and gesticulating around a table while one calm seated man waved a paper knife in the air as though conducting an orchestra. It was Zimmerman. He spoke in a trailing, weary tone:

“And Comrades, for Interior, who shall it be?”

“Give it to Schenk!”

“Schenk is too ambitious. I don’t trust him.”

“Take me then,” said a little man with a red goatee. “I’ve got what it takes. By tomorrow I’ll have five thousand traitors in prison.”

“I bet you will,” answered Zimmerman with a smile. “And I wouldn’t put it past you to lock me up first!”

Everyone burst out laughing. Even the man with the red goatee smiled.

“Very well,” concluded Zimmerman. “I’ll wait for Schenk’s reply. Meantime, we’ll leave Interior aside. I still have Health. Does no one want Health? I must say you are a stuck-up lot, my friends. Give me a fellow who has run a lazaretto in his time.”

At that instant Zimmerman spotted Odemar standing in the doorway, for all the world like an apparition. Recognizing him at once, and being a great lover of paradox and theatrical gestures, Zimmerman cried:

“My God, Odemar! You must have fallen from heaven! I hereby appoint you People’s Commissar for Health!”

Everyone turned round in amazement.

Eyeing Odemar’s uniform, Red Goatee muttered, “From hell, more like.”

Odemar was ushered into the assembly in a whirlwind of activity; an assortment of sounds created a low-key hubbub that reminded him of a fair. He was being pulled this way and that by a crowd of strangers falling over one another to examine him visually and manually. Since Zimmerman had chosen this unknown man, he must surely be somebody. And whatever doubts they might nurture, none of those present dared buck the whim of their leader. The moment was revolutionary, and miracles were the order of the day.

With a few brief words Zimmerman introduced Odemar to his colleagues-to-be. He managed to persuade them that an officer returned from the front the day before and joining the revolutionary cabinet still in his glorious campaign uniform would quickly win the people’s confidence. This was indeed a perfect way to stir the imagination of the masses.

So it was that Odemar, without ever being consulted on the matter, found himself enrolled in the Revolution.

Excerpt #2: pp. 62-69

The inaugural festivities of the Society of Universal Brotherhood (or SOFUB) on the Kurfürstendamm made a big splash in the capital. News reporters got into the act, and their sensational interviews whetted public curiosity about the alluring establishment where the event took place. Perversion was all the rage in Berlin in those days. Psychic nihilism and physical desperation alike were at their zenith. To escape, the more sensitive took refuge in the groves of illusion and voluptuousness. Sodom and Gomorrah were alive and well in Berlin. People boasted openly of their taste for drugs, promoted mysticism and witchcraft and—Clause 175 notwithstanding—paraded their homosexual or lesbian inclinations. And, since in Germany cause and effect govern everything, and everything has to be duly labeled and classified, all this was dubbed Freedom, Intense Life, the Grand Frenzy, or Divine Ecstasy.

Nora was radiant. Her “salon” quickly achieved a notoriety far surpassing that of poor Dr. Sahar. Everyone but everyone wanted to be invited. Ministers, poets, generals and lawyers scrambled for introductions. There were those who became Theosophists or Communists just to secure an entrée. Frau Finkelstein held receptions three times a week, and before long every evening. The Expressionists’ grand function room became one of the main attractions of the city; one paper named it the “Fair of Happiness.” Representatives of every conceivable sect were permanently on hand, looking for converts. Every god had a soapbox and an agitprop section in place. The political parties sensed that future governments could germinate here.

Such a confused and heterogeneous assembly was bound to degenerate: the word “Liberty” is an explosive more powerful than dynamite. The very meaning of “Universal Brotherhood” was soon dangerously expanded. Inasmuch as all constraints were to be abolished, and inasmuch as all repression was condemned by the cognoscenti, the logical and natural outcome was a general orgy conducted under the complaisant gaze of the gods. By midnight everyone in the temple of Universal Brotherhood was addressing each other in the familiar form. The women stripped naked as a way, so it was said, to kill desire in the bud, for veils and secrecy were the origin of sexual disturbances and only complete nudity could bring humanity back to the purity and honesty once known to Adam and Eve. Every couch was a wagon-lit occupied by a couple departing with a two-way ticket to Cythera. Mampe liqueurs and Mumm champagne flowed in a never-tarrying stream, provided gratis by the manufacturers, themselves puissant members of esoteric sects. From a strictly business point of view, in any case, it was hardly far-fetched to assume that it was in these magnates’ interest to support Odemar’s enterprise.

There were those with some lingering attachment to morality who felt obliged to justify dance on aesthetic grounds, arguing that it should be made part of a religious cult, as it had been among such high cultures of the past as those of the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks, and as it still was among black Africans. According to them, there was no subtler or more divine art than dance, which proved better than any sermon, or any logical demonstration, that the human body was inhabited by a soul.

“Dance!” and “Ecstasy!” were the battlecries now proposed to the Germans, replacing the outworn patriotic precept “Die for your Fatherland!” But of course one slogan is much like another, so long as its source is shrouded in mystery.

Well-bred young ladies who would once have dreamed of becoming opera singers or nurses now dedicated themselves to dance and longed to become priestesses of its sacred cult. Each invented some new form: ecstatic dance, heroic dance, philosophical dance; one promoted arm movements alone, another movements of the facial muscles alone, and a third voluptuous undulations of the whole body. Rare, however, were those who could use all their limbs to dance in a harmonious manner.

Ripe for self-sacrifice, all these bourgeois Iphigenias were greeted with open arms at the temple of Universal Brotherhood.

Outside, Berlin was dying of cold and hunger. The pauperization of Germany had reached catastrophic proportions.

According to legend, the greedy King Midas, granted a wish by Bacchus, asked that everything he touched be turned to gold. Sure enough, every tree, flower or rock that he touched was changed into gold. Soon he could boast that he was the richest man in the world. But when he got hungry and sat down to eat, poor King Midas found that his meat, fruit, and wine were likewise transformed. Had not the benevolent Bacchus taken pity on him, he would surely have starved to death on his mountain of gold.

In retribution for her overweening pride, Germany was now suffering a similar fate: everything she touched was turning to paper—and then to ashes. Some said that the country had slipped back from the age of steel to the Stone Age. In actuality it had regressed to the age of paper. The paper epidemic had already made itself felt during the War. As raw materials became scarcer, paper was what replaced them. Men were spotted wearing paper collars and paper coats, women paper blouses, and children paper shoes. Towels, tablecloths, and bed sheets were all made of paper. An inventor was on the point of manufacturing paper bicycles when the War ended—and the dominion of paper, seemingly, along with it. But not so fast! This was the very moment when the spectral presence of paper became universal. Banknotes expanded extravagantly. Like millefeuille pastry, a one-mark note multiplied under the influence of a mysterious force that changed it into a thousand-note wad of currency. The whole country was gripped by a strange illness that the experts likened to elephantiasis. The duplicating machinery of the sorcerers’ apprentices at the Berlin Mint whirred incessantly. A thousand bills metamorphosed into ten thousand, a hundred thousand, millions, tens of millions, billions…A one-mark piece got you a billion bills, but those bills barely paid for a kilo of bread and half a dozen eggs.

Now most Germans were fine upstanding people who still believed in the accuracy of the Gregorian calendar, the legitimacy of the penal code, and algebra as explained in their schoolbooks. All of a sudden the sort of numbers hitherto confined to astronomy were dancing before their eyes, and they were thrown into a frenzy. Millionaires! They could become millionaires! A dream straight out of the Brothers Grimm! For a thousand million paper marks they cheerfully sold their furniture, their houses, their gardens, and their daughters. They then put the thousand million in the bank. But, alas, the next month, when they made a withdrawal to pay the baker’s bill, they found that their entire balance could not cover it. They had sold a six-storey house for less than the price of a crust of black bread!

All Germany was now an empire of mere paper. Public buildings, bridges, factories—paper, nothing but paper! This frightening development deranged the populace. How indeed could it have failed to drive people mad? For many, madness was the sole refuge. It put one to sleep. Those who kept their wits about them committed suicide in droves. Fathers gassed their entire families, using up so much gas in the process that it would have cost them ten years at hard labor to pay it off, if only they had survived. Happy were the insane, all those who resorted to the classics, phenomenology, numismatics, Taoism, or any of the myriad sects with patents on God. Only Finkelstein, along with a very few other knowing capitalists, displayed a lucidity far more deserving of the epithet “divine” than the preachments and casuistry of all the self-appointed messiahs. He clearly grasped the meaning of the plague of paper that Germany was about to add to the seven plagues of the Good Book. He sensed that there was but one safe response to this high tide of paper, which was to throw the stuff away as quickly as possible, as if every scrap were soaked in some flammable liquid. Not to hold on to a single mark, but to treat money like a hot potato and get rid of it immediately by buying anything at all. For months following, he was consumed by the Herculean task of cleansing his business of every banknote that flowed in. He spent left and right. He bought crates of knitting needles. He bought Russian warships. He bought lakes in Canada. He bought Rembrandts. He bought perambulator factories, entire streets, racing stables, and a vast collection of erotic art.

Over at the Stock Exchange, SOFUB shares were the only ones appreciating in value. Indeed, they experienced their own extraordinary boom while all the other “real” shares, those of the breweries, the copper and potash mines, or the transport and insurance companies, were plummeting. The only enterprise that inspired confidence, it seemed, was the one financed by the Messiah.

Finkelstein himself was the first to realize that SOFUB stocks too were nothing but paper—the most perishable paper, in fact, quoted on the Exchange. During a single session, he divested himself of his entire holdings, thus creating panic. What! Was he trying to sabotage all his own efforts? Did he mean to abandon his Kurfürstendamm Society and its sectaries?

But Finkelstein knew which side his bread was buttered on. The turn taken by the festivities at the “Fair of Happiness” left him cold. How much longer was Odemar and Nora’s celebrity likely to last? He had lost patience. So he tossed his bomb into the Stock Exchange.

With respect to Odemar, Finkelstein turned out to have been a good psychologist. The young Teuton was superior to the role that the times had imposed on him. Behind his adventurer’s mask lay an immense power of resistance, and for all his nihilistic obsessions he was incapable of simply foundering.

When, amid the general delirium, Nora began to lose her bearings, playing the high priestess of depravity, getting drunk with her guests every night and swinging her hips in a wild Charleston, Odemar began to despise this bourgeoise masquerading as a Fury, this failed hausfrau trailing her doll-like tresses in the muck of Europe. Oftentimes, during the orgies, he took refuge in his study. Towards his guests he became distant, even frosty.

And yet, was he not the instigator of all this? Odemar gazed into the abyss of the sorcerer’s apprentice who has lost control of his materials, of the alchemist who has summoned up demons but forgotten the formula for the antidote that can conjure away their mischief. He recognized, now, the falsity of all those trumpet-calls to boundless pleasure, to the ecstasy of life lived to the fullest. He glimpsed the vanity, the mediocrity of those who exploited God—or Satan. The fatuity and crassness of the gurus and prophets enraged him. All their fancy talk made him sick; it was just a cover for a pathetic impotence. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could alter the plain fact that men were dust. The words “Fatherland” and “Glory” certainly could not alter it—and nor could the words “Brotherhood” and “Ecstasy.”

Love? Had he ever known love? Nora surely loved him, but she had never thrilled him. He realized that now. To love and be thrilled was everything; to be loved was nothing.

Little by little, Odemar was overcome by an urge to escape that could not be denied. To leave, to go anywhere. To some steppe, some desert. Away from phrasemaking and philosophizing—away from the mediocrity of men.

A miraculous about-face had made this German capable once more of embracing the opposite extreme. A metaphysical wind was blowing through his soul, eager to lift him out of the mire. And before many more days had passed, Odemar’s destiny granted him but the brief moment he needed to make his inevitable choice.

The collapse of SOFUB shares caused an uproar in officialdom. Before long the legal actions began. One morning around three, a police raid brought the nightly orgy to an abrupt close. (True, the presence of the Minister of War among the devotees of the Society of Universal Brotherhood meant that the matter was quickly swept under the rug.)

But no sooner had the alarm been raised than Odemar took his hat and slipped out through the kitchen window, less to evade the clutches of the police than to set off in search of himself.


Yvan Goll

”Yvan Goll is a man without a country; fate made him a Jew; chance caused him to be born in France; and a rubber stamp on a piece of paper decrees that he is German.“ This was how Goll described himself in 1920 for Pinthus’s famous anthology of Expressionism. He might as well have added that Yvan Goll was a man with no name—a man living anonymously, pseudonymously. And—inasmuch as Goll was equally at home in French, German, and English—a man with no mother tongue.

Goll was born Isaac Lange in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges of parents from Lorraine and Alsace. After completing a doctorate in law at the University of Strasbourg, he moved to Berlin and became active in the Expressionist movement, signing and collaborating on manifestoes and writing for Die Aktion and Weissen Blätter.

The Berlin of this time is the setting of Goll’s novel Sodom and Berlin, which may be read as his settling of accounts with the period and with the Expressionist movement that so perfectly epitomized it. For Goll saw Expressionism less as a literary or artistic school or style than as the very form in which the world was then experienced. Sodom and Berlin is an envenomed farewell to that world’s basic thematic—to what Pinthus called ”the human melody,“ with its rhetoric of pathos and clarion-calls to artistic brotherhood. As early as 1920, Goll wrote: ”Too many twinkling stars have been trotted out in honor of the peace. The magazines are canceling their orders. The pathos rate has dropped by eighty percent—and the brotherly love quota by 130 percent.“ The butt of Goll’s sarcasm is not in any simple way the opportunism of the literati, the stillborn November revolution, or the proliferation of cults of every description. Beyond all these, he is acutely aware of the vacuousness of an Expressionism that has made its peace with an era poised midway between cultivated ennui and looming barbarism.

Sodom and Berlin is also the ”symphony of the big city“—of Berlin between the end of the Empire and the rise of Nazism. This great capital of cultural modernity is viewed through the lens of a tragicomic epic, that of Odemar Müller, German to the marrow of his bones, who changes opinions, wives, and careers as frenetically as the nation itself passes through war, revolution and economic crisis. It is hard to think of anything in literature quite like this startling and disconcerting novel. Perhaps it should be viewed as a literary ”transform“ of the caricatures of Grosz and Dix, or as an analog of the Weimar cabaret. Sodom and Berlin is indeed a cabaret unto itself, a passing in ”review“ of a particular Zeitgeist.

The protagonist, Odemar Müller, is something less than a ”character“—Goll gives psychology short shrift. He is, rather, a set of facets, a kaleidoscope reflecting the times through which he moves, and a pure product of those times. Müller is a man without qualities, a marionette activated, agitated, by circumstances. Sodom and Berlin belongs to the same moment as the Pact of Locarno, when the Weimar Republic was enjoying a brief stability and Franco-German ”reconciliation“ was the order of the day. Thomas Mann traveled to Paris, André Gide visited Berlin. But Goll was taken in by none of this. His diagnosis of the conjuncture has often been compared to Benn’s. There are indeed similarities, but the differences are more important: Goll was more intransigent than Benn, more lucid, and far less tolerant in his attitude towards an era already pregnant with the horrors to come. This is the Goll that we now rediscover—the ”surgeon of the great German wound“ and the denouncer of the ”stagnant Europe“ of the interwar years. The Goll who so clearly exposed our condition, our situation then as now: ”What is ennui? Ennui is the state of a nation that believes in nothing and feels just fine. Ennui is when all of the continent’s watches persist in telling the right time. When exactly the same naïve flowers start blooming in March. When the deaths of solid family men are announced every day. When war is declared in the Balkans. When stars are mentioned in a poem. Ennui is a symptom of old age. Ennui bespeaks the gradual devaluation, from overuse, of all virtues and all talents. Ennui means being condemned forever to a form of existence that in itself is utterly exhausted.“

Donald Nicholson-Smith

Donald Nicholson-Smith's translations include works by Guy Debord, Jean Piaget, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, J.-B. Pontalis & Jean Laplanche, Thierry Jonquet, Henri Lefebvre, and Raoul Vaneigem. Born in Manchester, England, he is a longtime denizen of New York City. He may be reached at [email protected].

Sodome et Berlin (Strasbourg: Editions Circé, 1989). Copyright (c) Yvan and Claire Goll Foundation, 1929. English translation copyright (c) D. Nicholson-Smith, 2007.